From Commodity Money to Representative Money to Fiat Money

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 8th, 2014

History 101

(Originally published November 8th, 2011)

The Drawbacks to Using Pigs as Money Include they’re not Portable, Divisible, Durable or Uniform

They say we use every part of the pig but the oink.  So pigs are pretty valuable animals.  And we have used them as money.  Because they’re valuable.  People were willing to accept a pig in trade for something of value of theirs.  Because they knew they could always trade that pig to someone else later.  Because we use every part of the pig but the oink.  Which makes them pretty valuable.

Of course, there are drawbacks to using pigs as money.  For one they’re not that portable.  They’re not that easy to take to the market.  And they’re big.  Hold a lot of value.  So what do you do when something is worth more than one pig but not quite worth two?  Well, pigs aren’t readily divisible.  Unless you slaughter them.  But then you’d have to hurry up and trade the parts before they spoil because they’re not going to stay fresh long.  For pig parts aren’t very durable.

Suppose you have two pigs.  And someone has something you want and they will trade two pigs for it.  But there’s only one problem.  One pig is big and healthy.  The other is old and sickly.  And half the weight of the healthy one.  This trader was willing to take two pigs in trade.  But clearly the two pigs you have are unequal in value.  They’re not uniform.  And not quite what this trader had in mind when he said he’d take two pigs in trade.

Our Paper Currency Evolved from the Certificates we Carried for our Gold and Silver we Kept Locked Up

Rats are more uniform.  They’re more portable.  And they’re smaller.  It would be easier to price things in units of rats rather than pigs.  They would solve all the problems of using pigs as money.  Except one.  Rats are germ-infested parasites that no one wants.  And they breed like rabbits.  You never have only one rat.  Man has spent most of history trying to get rid of these vile disease carriers.  So no one would trade anything of value for rats.  Because these little plague generators were overrunning cities everywhere.  So rats were many things.  But one thing they weren’t was scarce.

Eventually we settled on a commodity that addresses all the shortcomings of pigs and rats.  As well as other commodities.  Gold and silver.  These precious metals were portable.  Durable.  They didn’t spoil and held their value for a long time.  You could make coins in different denominations.  So they were easily divisible.  Unlike a pig.  They were uniform.  Unlike pigs.  Finally, you had to dig gold and silver out of the ground.  After digging a lot of holes trying to find gold and silver deposits.  Which made it costly to bring new gold and silver to market.  Keeping gold and silver scarce.  And valuable.  Unlike rats.

But gold and silver were heavy metals.  Carrying large amounts was exhausting.  And dangerous.  A chest of gold and silver was tempting to thieves.  As you couldn’t hide it easily.  Soon we left our gold and silver locked up somewhere.  And carried certificates instead that were exchangeable for that gold and silver.  And these became our paper currency.

Governments Everywhere left the Gold Standard in the 20th Century so they could Print Fiat Money

The use of certificates like this is typically what people mean by gold standard.  Money in circulation represents the value of the underlying gold or silver.  And can be exchanged for that gold or silver.  Which meant that governments couldn’t just print money.  Like they do today.  Because the value was in the gold and silver.  Not the paper that represented the gold and silver.  And the only way to create money was to dig it out of the ground, process it and bring it to market.  Which is a lot harder to do than printing paper money.  So governments everywhere left the gold standard in the 20th century in favor of fiat money.  So they could print money.  Create it out of nothing.  And spend it.  With no restraints of responsible governing whatsoever.

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Capital Flows and Currency Exchange

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 10th, 2014

Economics 101

(Originally published July 30th, 2012)

Before we buy a Country’s Exports we have to Exchange our Currency First

What’s the first thing we do when traveling to a foreign country?  Exchange our currency.  Something we like to do at our own bank.  Before leaving home.  Where we can get a fair exchange rate.  Instead of someplace in-country where they factor the convenience of location into the exchange rate.  Places we go to only after we’ve run out of local currency.  And need some of it fast.  So we’ll pay the premium on the exchange rate.  And get less foreign money in exchange for our own currency.

Why are we willing to accept less money in return for our money?  Because when we run out of money in a foreign country we have no choice.  If you want to eat at a McDonalds in Canada they expect you to pay with Canadian dollars.  Which is why the money in the cash drawer is Canadian money.  Because the cashier accepts payment and makes change in Canadian money.  Just like they do with American money in the United States.

So currency exchange is very important for foreign purchases.  Because foreign goods are priced in a foreign currency.  And it’s just not people traveling across the border eating at nice restaurants and buying souvenirs to bring home.  But people in their local stores buying goods made in other countries.  Before we buy them with our American dollars someone else has to buy them first.  Japanese manufacturers need yen to run their businesses.  Chinese manufacturers need yuan to run their businesses.  Indian manufacturers need rupees to run their businesses.  So when they ship container ships full of their goods they expect to get yen, yuan and rupees in return.  Which means that before anyone buys their exports someone has to exchange their currency first.

Goods flow One Way while Gold flows the Other until Price Inflation Reverses the Flow of Goods and Gold

We made some of our early coins out of gold.  Because different nations used gold, too, it was relatively easy to exchange currencies.  Based on the weight of gold in those coins.  Imagine one nation using a gold coin the size of a quarter as their main unit of currency.  And another nation uses a gold coin the size of a nickel.  Let’s say the larger coin weighs twice as much as the smaller coin.  Or has twice the amount of gold in it.  Making the exchange easy.  One big coin equals two small coins in gold value.  So if I travel to the country of small coins with three large gold coins I exchange them for six of the local coins.  And then go shopping.

The same principle follows in trade between these two countries.  To buy a nation’s exports you have to first exchange your currency for theirs.  This is how.  You go to the exporter country with bags of your gold coins.  You exchange them for the local currency.  You then use this local currency to pay for the goods they will export to you.  Then you go back to your country and wait for the ship to arrive with your goods.  When it arrives your nation has a net increase in imported goods (i.e., a trade deficit).  And a net decrease in gold.  While the other nation has a net increase in exported goods (i.e., a trade surplus).  And a net increase in gold.

The quantity theory of money tells us that as the amount of money in circulation increases it creates price inflation.  Because there’s more of it in circulation it’s easy to get and worth less.  Because the money is worth less it takes more of it to buy the same things it once did.  So prices rise.  As prices rise in a nation with a trade surplus.  And fall in a nation with a trade deficit.  Because less money in circulation makes it harder to get and worth more.  Because the money is worth more it takes less of it to buy the same things it once did.  So prices fall.  This helps to make trade neutral (no deficit or surplus).  As prices rise in the exporter nation people buy less of their more expensive exports.  As prices fall in an importer nation people begin buying their less expensive exports.  So as goods flow one way gold flows the other way.  Until inflation rises in one country and eventually reverses the flow of goods and gold.  We call this the price-specie flow mechanism.

In the Era of Floating Exchange Rates Governments don’t have to Act Responsibly Anymore

This made the gold standard an efficient medium of exchange for international trade.  Whether we used gold.  Or a currency backed by gold.  Which added another element to the exchange rate.  For trading paper bills backed by gold required a government to maintain their domestic money supply based on their foreign exchange rate.  Meaning that they at times had to adjust the number of bills in circulation to maintain their exchange rate.  So if a country wanted to lower their interest rates (to encourage borrowing to stimulate their economy) by increasing the money supply they couldn’t.  Limiting what governments could do with their monetary policy.  Especially in the age of Keynesian economics.  Which was the driving force for abandoning the gold standard.

Most nations today use a floating exchange rate.  Where countries treat currencies as commodities.  With their own supply and demand determining exchange rates.  Or a government’s capital controls (restricting the free flow of money) that overrule market forces.  Which you can do when you don’t have to be responsible with your monetary policy.  You can print money.  You can keep foreign currency out of your county.  And you can manipulate your official exchange rate to give you an advantage in international trade by keeping your currency weak.  So when trading partners exchange their currency with you they get a lot of yours in exchange.  Allowing them to buy more of your goods than they can buy from other nations with the same amount of money.  Giving you an unfair trade advantage.  Trade surpluses.  And lots of foreign currency to invest in things like U.S. treasury bonds.

The gold standard gave us a fixed exchange rate and the free flow of capital.  But it limited what a government could do with its monetary policy.  An active monetary policy will allow the free flow of capital but not a fixed exchange rate.  Capital controls prevent the free flow of capital but allows a fixed exchange rate and an active monetary policy.  Governments have tried to do all three of these things.  But could never do more than two.  Which is why we call these three things the impossible trinity.  Which has been a source of policy disputes within a nation.  And between nations.  Because countries wanted to abandoned the gold standard to adopt policies that favored their nation.  And then complained about nations doing the same thing because it was unfair to their own nation.  Whereas the gold standard made trade fair.  By making governments act responsible.  Something they never liked.  And in the era of floating exchange rates they don’t have to act responsibly anymore.

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Bretton Woods System, Quasi Gold Standard, Inflation, Savings, Nixon Shock and Monetizing the Debt

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 4th, 2014

History 101

(Originally published 2/5/2013)

The Bretton Woods System was a quasi Gold Standard where the U.S. Dollar replaced Gold

Government grew in the Sixties.  LBJ’s Great Society increased government spending.  Adding it on top of spending for the Vietnam War.  The Apollo Moon Program.  As well as the Cold War.  The government was spending a lot of money.  More money than it had.  So they started increasing the money supply (i.e., printing money).  But when they did they unleashed inflation.  Which devalued the dollar.  And eroded savings.  Also, because the U.S. was still on a quasi gold standard this also created a problem with their trade partners.

At the time the United States was still in the Bretton Woods System.  Along with her trade partners.  These nations adopted the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency to facilitate international trade.  Which kept trade fair.  By preventing anyone from devaluing their currency to give them an unfair trade advantage.  They would adjust their monetary policy to maintain a fixed exchange rate with the U.S. dollar.  While the U.S. coupled the U.S. dollar to gold at $35/ounce.  Which created a quasi gold standard.  Where the U.S. dollar replaced gold.

So the U.S. had a problem when they started printing money.  They were devaluing the dollar.  So those nations holding it as a reserve currency decided to hold gold instead.  And exchanged their dollars for gold at $35/ounce.  Causing a great outflow of gold from the U.S.  Giving the U.S. a choice.  Either become responsible and stop printing money.  Or decouple the dollar from gold.  And no longer exchange gold for dollars.  President Nixon chose the latter.  And on August 15, 1971, he surprised the world.  Without any warning he decoupled the dollar from gold.  It was a shock.  So much so they call it the Nixon Shock.

To earn a Real 2% Return the Interest Rate would have to be 2% plus the Loss due to Inflation

Once they removed gold from the equation there was nothing stopping them from printing money.  The already growing money supply (M2) grew at a greater rate after the Nixon Shock (see M2 Money Stock).  The rate of increase (i.e., the inflation rate) declined for a brief period around 1973.  Then resumed its sharp rate of growth around 1975.  Which you can see in the following chart.  Where the increasing graph represents the rising level of M2.

M2 versus Retirement Savings

Also plotted on this graph is the effect of this growth in the money supply on retirement savings.  In 1966 the U.S. was still on a quasi gold standard.  So assume the money supply equaled the gold on deposit in 1966.  And as they increased the money supply over the years the amount of gold on deposit remained the same.  So if we divide M2 in 1966 by M2 in each year following 1966 we get a declining percentage.  M2 in 1966 was only 96% of M2 in 1967.  M2 in 1966 was only 88% of M2 in 1968.  And so on.  Now if we start off with a retirement savings of $750,000 in 1966 we can see the effect of inflation has by multiplying that declining percentage by $750,000.  When we do we get the declining graph in the above chart.  To offset this decline in the value of retirement savings due to inflation requires those savings to earn a very high interest rate.

Interest Rate - Real plus Inflation

This chart starts in 1967 as we’re looking at year-to-year growth in M2.  Inflation eroded 4.07% of savings between 1966 and 1967.   So to earn a real 2% return the interest rate would have to be 2% plus the loss due to inflation (4.07%).  Or a nominal interest rate of 6.07%.  The year-to-year loss in 1968 was 8.68%.  So the nominal interest rate for a 2% real return would be 10.68% (2% + 8.68%).  And so on as summarized in the above chart.  Because we’re discussing year-to-year changes on retirement savings we can consider these long-term nominal interest rates.

Just as Inflation can erode someone’s Retirement Savings it can erode the National Debt

To see how this drives interest rates we can overlay some average monthly interest rates for 6 Month CDs (see Historical CD Interest Rate).  Which are often a part of someone’s retirement nest egg.  The advantage of a CD is that they are short-term.  So as interest rates rise they can roll over these short-term instruments and enjoy the rising rates.  Of course that advantage is also a disadvantage.  For if rates fall they will roll over into a lower rate.  Short-term interest rates tend to be volatile.  Rising and falling in response to anything that affects the supply and demand of money.  Such as the rate of growth of the money supply.  As we can see in the following chart.

Interest Rate - Real plus Inflation and 6 Month CD

The average monthly interest rates for 6 Month CDs tracked the long-term nominal interest rates.  As the inflationary component of the nominal interest rate soared in 1968 and 1969 the short-term rate trended up.  When the long-term rate fell in 1970 the short-term rate peaked and fell in the following year.  After the Nixon Shock long-term rates increased in 1971.  And soared in 1972 and 1973.  The short-term rate trended up during these years.  And peaked when the long-term rate fell.  The short term rate trended down in 1974 and 1975 as the long-term rate fell.  It bottomed out in 1977 in the second year of soaring long-term rates.  Where it then trended up at a steeper rate all the way through 1980.  Sending short-term rates even higher than long-term rates.  As the risk on short-term savings can exceed that on long-term savings.  Due to the volatility of short-term interest rates and wild swings in the inflation rate.  Things that smooth out over longer periods of time.

Governments like inflationary monetary policies.  For it lets them spend more money.  But it also erodes savings.  Which they like, too.  Especially when those savings are invested in the sovereign debt of the government.  For just as inflation can erode someone’s retirement savings it can erode the national debt.  What we call monetizing the debt.  For as you expand the money supply you depreciate the dollar.  Making dollars worth less.  And when the national debt is made up of depreciated dollars it’s easier to pay it off.  But it’s a dangerous game to play.  For if they do monetize the debt it will be very difficult to sell new government debt.  For investors will demand interest rates with an even larger inflationary component to protect them from further irresponsible monetary policies.  Greatly increasing the interest payment on the debt.  Forcing spending cuts elsewhere in the budget as those interest payments consume an ever larger chunk of the total budget.  Which governments are incapable of doing.  Because they love spending too much.

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Bretton Woods, Nixon Shock, OPEC, Yom Kippur War, Oil Embargo, Stagflation, Paul Volcker, Ronald Reagan and Morning in America

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 1st, 2013

History 101

(Originally published September 18th, 2012)

Under the Bretton Woods System the Americans promised to Exchange their Gold for Dollars at $35 per Ounce

Wars are expensive.  All kinds.  The military kind.  As well as the social kind.  And the Sixties gave us a couple of doozies.  The Vietnam War.  And the War on Poverty.  Spending in Vietnam started in the Fifties.  But spending, as well as troop deployment, surged in the Sixties.  First under JFK.  Then under LBJ.  They added this military spending onto the Cold War spending.  Then LBJ declared a war on poverty.  And all of this spending was on top of NASA trying to put a man on the moon.  Which was yet another part of the Cold War.  To beat the Soviets to the moon after they beat us in orbit.

This was a lot of spending.  And it carried over into the Seventies.  Giving President Nixon a big problem.  As he also had a balance of payments deficit.  And a trade deficit.  Long story short Nixon was running out of money.  So they started printing it.  Which caused another problem as the US was still part of the Bretton Woods system.  A quasi gold standard.  Where the US pegged the dollar to gold at $35 per ounce.  Which meant when they started printing dollars the money supply grew greater than their gold supply.  And depreciated the dollar.  Which was a problem because under Bretton Woods the Americans promised to exchange their gold for dollars at $35 per ounce.

When other nations saw the dollar depreciate so that it would take more and more of them to buy an ounce of gold they simply preferred having the gold instead.  Something the Americans couldn’t depreciate.  Nations exchanged their dollars for gold.  And began to leave the Bretton Woods system.    Nixon had a choice to stop this gold outflow.  He could strengthen the dollar by reducing the money supply (i.e., stop printing dollars) and cut spending.  Or he could ‘close the gold window’ and decouple the dollar from gold.  Which is what he did on August 15, 1971.  And shocked the international financial markets.  Hence the name the Nixon Shock.

When the US supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War the Arab Oil Producers responded with an Oil Embargo

Without the restraint of gold preventing the printing of money the Keynesians were in hog heaven.  As they hated the gold standard.  The suspension of the convertibility of gold ushered in the heyday of Keynesian economics.  Even Nixon said, “I am now a Keynesian in economics.”  The US had crossed the Rubicon.  Inflationary Keynesian policies were now in charge of the economy.  And they expanded the money supply.  Without restraint.  For there was nothing to fear.  No consequences.  Just robust economic activity.  Of course OPEC didn’t see it that way.

Part of the Bretton Woods system was that other nations used the dollar as a reserve currency.  Because it was as good as gold.  As our trading partners could exchange $35 for an ounce of gold.  Which is why we priced international assets in dollars.  Like oil.  Which is why OPEC had a problem with the Nixon Shock.  The dollars they got for their oil were rapidly becoming worth less than they once were.  Which greatly reduced what they could buy with those dollars.  The oil exporters were losing money with the American devaluation of the dollar.  So they raised the price of oil.  A lot.  Basically pricing it at the current value of gold in US dollars.  Meaning the more they depreciated the dollar the higher the price of oil went.  As well as gas prices.

With the initial expansion of the money supply there was short-term economic gain.  The boom.  But shortly behind this inflationary gain came higher prices.  And a collapse in economic activity.  The bust.  This was the dark side of Keynesian economics.  Higher prices that pushed economies into recessions.  And to make matters worse Americans were putting more of their depreciated dollars into the gas tank.  And the Keynesians said, “No problem.  We can fix this with some inflation.”  Which they tried to by expanding the money supply further.  Meanwhile, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on October 6, 1973, kicking off the Yom Kippur War.  And when the US supported their ally Israel the Arab oil producers responded with an oil embargo.  Reducing the amount of oil entering America, further raising prices.  And causing gas lines as gas stations ran out of gas.  (In part due to Nixon’s price controls that did not reset demand via higher prices to the reduced supply.  And a ceiling on domestic oil prices discouraged any domestic production.)  The Yom Kippur War ended about 20 days later.  Without a major change in borders.  With an Israeli agreement to pull their forces back to the east side of the Suez Canal the Arab oil producers (all but Libya) ended their oil embargo in March of 1974.

It was Morning in America thanks to the Abandonment of Keynesian Inflationary Policies

So oil flowed into the US again.  But the economy was still suffering from high unemployment.  Which the Keynesians fixed with some more inflation.  With another burst of monetary expansion starting around 1975.  To their surprise, though, unemployment did not fall.  It just raised prices.  Including oil prices.  Which increased gas prices.  The US was suffering from high unemployment and high inflation.  Which wasn’t supposed to happen in Keynesian economics.  Even their Phillips Curve had no place on its graph for this phenomenon.  The Keynesians were dumfounded.  And the American people suffered through the malaise of stagflation.  And if things weren’t bad enough the Iranians revolted and the Shah of Iran (and US ally) stepped down and left the country.  Disrupting their oil industry.  And then President Carter put a halt to Iranian oil imports.  Bringing on the 1979 oil crisis.

This crisis was similar to the previous one.  But not quite as bad.  As it was only Iranian oil being boycotted.  But there was some panic buying.  And some gas lines again.  But Carter did something else.  He began to deregulate oil prices over a period of time.  It wouldn’t help matters in 1979 but it did allow the price of crude oil to rise in the US.  Drawing the oil rigs back to the US.  Especially in Alaska.  Also, the Big Three began to make smaller, more fuel efficient cars.  These two events would combine with another event to bring down the price of oil.  And the gasoline we made from that oil.

Actually, there was something else President Carter did that would also affect the price of oil.  He appointed Paul Volcker Chairman of the Federal Reserve in August of 1979.  He was the anti-Keynesian.  He raised interest rates to contract the money supply and threw the country into a steep recession.  Which brought prices down.  Wringing out the damage of a decade’s worth of inflation.  When Ronald Reagan won the 1980 presidency he kept Volcker as Chairman.  And suffered through a horrible 2-year recession.  But when they emerged it was Morning in America.  They had brought inflation under control.  Unemployment fell.  The economy rebounded thanks to Reagan’s tax cuts.  And the price of oil plummeted.  Thanks to the abandonment of Keynesian inflationary policies.  And the abandonment of oil regulation.  As well as the reduction in demand (due to those smaller and more fuel efficient cars).  Which created a surge in oil exploration and production that resulted in an oil glut in the Eighties.  Bringing the price oil down to almost what it was before the two oil shocks.

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Rand Paul says Milton Friedman would oppose the Fed’s Bond Buying Program

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 17th, 2013

Week in Review

What’s the difference between hard money (gold, silver, etc.) and paper money?  You can’t print hard money.  Which is why big-spending governments hate hard money.  And love paper money.  They use lofty economic explanations like having the money supply grow at a rate to support an expanding economy.  But the real reason they love paper money is because there is no limit on what they can spend.

This is why some people would prefer bringing back the gold standard.  To make the government as responsible as the rest of us.  Governments and their liberal friends hate this kind of talk.  And try to dismiss it with all-knowing condescension.  Because they sound so learned in their defense of their monetary policies despite a long record of failure they get to keep trying the same failed policies of the past.

Now it’s Rand Paul talking about the gold standard.  Invoking the name of Milton Friedman.  A monetarist.  And receiving the expected criticism (see Rand Paul is dead wrong about Milton Friedman by James Pethokoukis posted 8/13/2013 on the guardian).

Friedman understood the power of monetary policy, for both good and ill. He would almost certainly have been aghast that the Fed blew it again in 2008 by its tight money policies that possibly turned a modest downturn into the Great Recession. And he almost certainly would have been appalled at Republicans pushing for tight money – or, heaven help us, a return to the gold standard – with the economy barely growing and inflation low. It is certainly inconvenient for Paul that Friedman – a libertarian, Nobel-laureate economist – would have little use for the senator’s supposedly Hayekian take on the Fed or monetary policy.

Although the Bernanke Fed has imperfectly executed its QE programs, they are a big reason why the US is growing and adding jobs – despite President’s Obama’s regulatory onslaught and tax hikes – and the EU (and the inflation hawk ECB) is back in recession. Paul is wrong on Friedman and wrong on the Fed. It’s not even close.

One of Friedman’s criticisms of the gold standard is that to maintain the international price of gold—and price stability—governments would have to give up control of their domestic policies.  As a gold standard would prevent them from expanding the money supply at will.  So they couldn’t print money and devalue their currency to increase government spending.  To give themselves an unfair trade advantage.  And to monetize their debt from past irresponsible government spending.  But governments being governments they will do these things even with a gold standard.  As Richard Nixon and the US government did in the 1970s.  Rapidly devaluing the dollar.  Causing a great outflow of gold from the US as our trading partners preferred to hold onto gold instead of devalued US dollars.

The idea of monetarism was to have something similar like a gold standard while having the ability to expand the money supply to keep up with the growth in GDP.  And this would work if responsible people were in charge.  Who would resist the urge to print money.  Like Ronald Reagan.  Under the advice from none other than Milton Friedman.  Who served on the President Reagan’s Economic Policy Advisory Board.  Reagan shared Friedman’s economic views.  Believed in a limited government that left the free market alone.  So Reagan cut taxes, reduced government spending (other than defense) and deregulated an overregulated free market wherever he could.  All things Friedman endorsed.

It is unlikely that Friedman would endorse any quantitative easing.  Because a lack of credit is not causing our economic woes.  It’s a complicated tax code.  High tax rates.  And way too much governmental regulation and interference into the free market.  Especially Obamacare.  That has frozen all new hiring.  And pushed full-time workers into part-time positions.  Or out of a job entirely.  More money in the economy is not going to fix this anti-business climate of the Obama administration.  In fact, the only people making any money now are rich people.  Who are using all that new money to make more money in the stock market.  And when the government shuts off the quantitative easing tap those rich people are going to bail out of the stock market.  To lock in their profits.  Causing the stock market to crash.  And putting an end to the phony illusion of an economic recovery.  And the worst economic recovery since that following the Great Depression will get worse.

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Quantitative Easing

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 24th, 2013

Economics 101

The Gold Standard prevented Nations from Devaluing their Currency to Keep Trade Fair

You may have heard of the great gamble the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, has been making.  Quantitative easing (QE).  The current program being QE3.  The third round since the subprime mortgage crisis.  It’s stimulus.  Of the Keynesian variety.  And in QE3 the Federal Reserve has been ‘printing’ $85 billion each month and using it to buy financial assets on the open market.  Greatly increasing the money supply.  But why?  And how exactly is this supposed to stimulate the economy?  To understand this we need to understand monetary policy.

Keynesians hate the gold standard.  They do not like any restrictions on the government’s central bank’s ability to print money.  Which the gold standard did.  The gold standard pegged the U.S. dollar to gold.  Other central banks could exchange their dollars for gold at the exchange rate of $40/ounce.  This made international trade fair by keeping countries from devaluing their currency to gain a trade advantage.  A devalued U.S. dollar gives the purchaser a lot more weaker dollars when they exchange their stronger currency for them.  Allowing them to buy more U.S. goods than they can when they exchange their currency with a nation that has a stronger currency.  So a nation with a strong export economy would like to weaken their currency to entice the buyers of exports to their export market.  Giving them a trade advantage over countries that have stronger currencies.

The gold standard prevented nations from devaluing their currency and kept trade fair.  In the 20th century the U.S. was the world’s reserve currency.  And it was pegged to gold.  Making the U.S. dollar as good as gold.  But due to excessive government spending through the Sixties and into the Seventies the American central bank, the Federal Reserve, began to print money to pay for their ever growing spending obligations.  Thus devaluing their currency.  Giving them a trade advantage.  But because of that convertibility of dollars into gold nations began to do just that.  Exchange their U.S. dollars for gold.  Because the dollar was no longer as good as gold.  So nations opted to hold gold instead.  Instead of the U.S. dollar as their reserve currency.  Causing a great outflow of gold from the U.S. central bank.

Going off of the Gold Standard made the Seventies the Golden Age of Keynesian Economics

This gave President Richard Nixon quite the contrary.  For no nation wants to lose all of their gold reserves.  So what to do?  Make the dollar stronger?  By not only stopping the printing of new money but pulling existing money out of circulation.  Raising interest rates.  And forcing the government to make REAL spending cuts.  Not cuts in future increases in spending.  But REAL cuts in current spending.  Something anathema to Big Government.  So President Nixon chose another option.  He slammed the gold window shut.  Decoupling the dollar from gold.  No longer exchanging gold for dollars.  Known forever after as the Nixon Shock.  Making a Keynesian dream come true.  Finally giving the central bank the ability to print money at will.

The Keynesians said they could make recessions a thing of the past with their ability to control the size of the money supply.  Because everything comes down to consumer spending.  When the consumers spend the economy does well.  When they don’t spend the economy goes into recession.  So when the consumers don’t spend the government will print money (and borrow money) to spend to replace that lost consumer spending.  And increase the amount of money in circulation to make more available to borrow.  Which will lower interest rates.  Encouraging people to borrow money to buy big ticket items.  Like cars.  And houses.  Thus stimulating the economy out of recession.

The Seventies was the golden age of Keynesian economics.  Freed from the responsible restraints of the gold standard the Keynesians could prove all their theories by creating robust economic activity with their control over the money supply.  But it didn’t work.  Their expansionary policies unleashed near hyperinflation.  Destroying consumers’ purchasing power.  As the greatly devalued dollar raised prices everywhere.  As it took more of them to buy the things they once did before that massive inflation.

The only People Borrowing that QE Money are Very Rich People making Wall Street Investments

The Seventies proved that Keynesian stimulus did not work.  But central bankers throughout the world still embrace it.  For it allows them to spend money they don’t have.  And governments, especially governments with large welfare states, love to spend money.  So they keep playing their monetary policy games.  And when recessions come they expand the money supply.  Making it easy to borrow.  Thus lowering interest rates.  To stimulate those big ticket purchases.  But following the subprime
mortgage crisis those near-zero interest rates did not spur the economic activity the Keynesians thought it would.  People weren’t borrowing that money to buy new houses.  Because of the collapse of the housing market leaving more houses on the market than people wanted to buy.  So there was no need to build new houses.  And, therefore, no need to borrow money.

So this is the problem Ben Bernanke faced.  His expansionary monetary policy (increasing the money supply to lower interest rates) was not stimulating any economic activity.  And with interest rates virtually at 0% there was little liquidity Bernanke could add to the economy.  Resulting in a Keynesian liquidity trap.  Interest rates so close to zero that they could not lower them any more to create economic activity.  So they had to find another way.  Some other way to stimulate economic activity.  And that something else was quantitative easing.  The buying of financial assets in the market place by the Federal Reserve.  Pumping enormous amounts of money into the economy.  In the hopes someone would use that money to buy something.  To create that ever elusive economic activity that their previous monetary efforts failed to produce.

But just like their previous monetary efforts failed so has QE failed.  For the only people borrowing that money were very rich people making Wall Street investments.  Making rich people richer.  While doing nothing (so far) for the working class.  Which is why when Bernanke recently said they may start throttling back on that easy money (i.e., tapering) the stock market fell.  As rich people anticipated a coming rise in interest rates.  A rise in business costs.  A fall in business profits.  And a fall in stock prices.  So they were getting out with their profits while the getting was good.  But it gets worse.

The economy is not improving because of a host of other bad policy decisions.  Higher taxes, more regulations on business, Obamacare, etc.  And a massive devaluation of the dollar (by ‘printing’ all of that new money) just hasn’t overcome the current anti-business climate.  But the potential inflation it may unleash worries some.  A lot.  For having a far greater amount of dollars chasing the same amount of goods can unleash the kind of inflation that we had in the Seventies.  Or worse.  And the way they got rid of the Seventies’ near hyperinflation was with a long, painful recession in the Eighties.  This time, though, things can be worse.  For we still haven’t really pulled out of the Great Recession.  So we’ll be pretty much going from one recession into an even worse recession.  Giving the expression ‘the worst recession since the Great Depression’ new meaning.

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Currencies, Exchange Rates and the Gold Standard

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 17th, 2013

Economics 101

Money is a Temporary Storage of Value that has no Intrinsic Value

Giant container ships ply the world’s oceans bringing us a lot of neat stuff.  Big televisions.  Smartphones.  Laptop computers.  Tablet computers.  The hardware for our cable and satellite TVs.  Toasters.  Toaster ovens.  Mixers and blenders.  And everything else we have in our homes and in our lives.  Things that make our lives better.  And make it more enjoyable.  These things have value.  We give them value.  Some have more value to one than another.  But these are things that have value to us.  And because they have value to us they have value to the people that made them.  Who used their human capital to create things that other people wanted.  And would trade for them.

When we first started trading we bartered with others.  Trading things for other things.  But as the economy grew more complex it took a lot of time to find someone who had what you wanted AND you had what they wanted.  So we developed money.  A temporary storage of value.  So we could trade the valuable things we created for money.  That money held the value of what we created temporarily while we looked for something that we wanted.  Then we exchanged the money we got earlier for something someone had.  It was just like trading our thing for someone else’s thing.  Only instead of spending weeks, months even years meeting hundreds of thousands of people trying to find that perfect match we only needed to meet two people.  One that exchanges money for the thing we have that they want.  And another who has what we want that they will exchange for our money.  Then that person would do the same with the money they got from us.  As did everyone else who brought things to market.  And those who came to market with money to buy what others brought.

Money is a temporary storage of value.  Money itself doesn’t have any intrinsic value.  Consider that container ship full of those wonderful items.  Now, which would you rather have as permanent fixtures in your house?  Those wonderful things?  Or boxes of money that just sit in your house?  You’d want the wonderful things.  And if you had a box of money you would exchange it (i.e., go out shopping) for those wonderful things.  Because boxes of money aren’t any fun.  It’s what you can exchange that money for that can be a lot of fun.

Devaluing your Currency boosts Exports by making those Goods less Expensive to the Outside World

So there is a lot of value on one of those container ships.  Let’s take all of that value out of the ship and place it on a balancing scale.  Figuratively, of course.  Now the owner of that stuff wants to trade it for other stuff.  But how much value does this stuff really have?  Well, let’s assume the owner is willing to exchange it all for one metric ton of gold.  Because gold is pretty valuable, too.  People will trade other things for gold.  So if we put 1 metric ton of gold on the other side of the balancing scale (figuratively, of course) the scale will balance.  Because to the owner all of that stuff and one metric ton has the same value.  Of course moving a metric ton of gold is not easy.  And it’s very risky.  So, instead of gold what else can we put on that scale?  Well, we can move dollars electronically via computer networks.  That would be a lot easier than moving gold.  So let’s put dollars on the other side of that scale.  Figuratively, of course.  How many will we need?  Well, today gold is worth approximately $1,380/troy ounce.  So after some dimensional analysis we can convert that metric ton into 32,150 troy ounces.  And at $1,380/troy ounce that metric ton of gold comes to approximately $44.4 million.  So that container ship full of wonderful stuff will balance on a scale with $44.4 million on the other side.  Or 1 metric ton of gold.  In the eyes of the owner they all have the same value.

Moving money electronically is the easiest and quickest manner of exchanging money for ships full of goods.  These ships go to many countries.  And not all of them use American dollars.  But we can calculate what amounts of foreign currency will balance the value of that ship.  Or one metric ton of gold.  By using foreign exchange rates.  Which tell us the value of one currency in another currency.  Something that comes in pretty handy.  For when, say, an American manufacturer sells their goods they want American dollars.  Not British pounds.  Danish kroner.  Or Russian rubles.  For American manufacturers are in the United States of America.  They buy their materials in American dollars.  They pay their employees in American dollars.  Who pay their bills in American dollars.  Go shopping with American dollars.  Etc.  For everyday American transactions the British pound, for example, would be un-useable.  What these American manufacturers want, then, are American dollars.  So before a foreigner can buy these American exports they must first exchange their foreign currencies for American dollars.  We can get an idea of this by considering that container ship full of valuable stuff.  By showing what it would cost other nations.  The following table shows a sampling of foreign exchange rates and the exchanged foreign currency for that $44.4 million.

foreign currencies and exchange rates

If we take the US dollars and the Exchanged Currency for each row and place them on either side of a balancing scale the scale will balance.  Figuratively, of course.  Meaning these currencies have the same value.  And we can exchange either side of that scale for that container ship full of valuable stuff.  Or for that metric ton of gold.  Why are there such large differences in some of these exchange rates?  Primarily because of a nation’s monetary policy.  Many nations manipulate their currency for various reasons.  Some nations give their people a lot of government benefits they pay for by printing money.  Which devalues their currency.  Some nations purposely devalue their currency to boost their export sector.  As the more currency you get in exchange for your currency the more of these exports you can buy.  Most of China’s great economic growth came from their export sector.  Which they helped along by devaluing their currency.  This boosted exports by making those goods less expensive to the outside world.  But the weakened yuan made domestic goods more expensive.  Because it took more of them to buy the same things they once did.  Raising the cost of living for the ordinary Chinese.

The Gold Standard made Free Trade Fair Trade

Some economists, Keynesians, approve of printing a lot of money to lower interest rates.  And for the government to spend.  They think this will increase economic activity.  Well, keeping interest rates artificially low will encourage more people to buy homes.  But because they are devaluing the currency to keep those interest rates artificially low housing prices rise.  Because when you devalue your currency you cause price inflation.  But it’s just not house prices that rise.  Prices throughout the economy rise.  The greater the inflation rate (i.e., the rate at which you increase the money supply) the higher prices rise.  And the less your money will buy.  While the currencies at the top of this table will have exchange rates that don’t vary much those at the bottom of the table may.  Especially countries that like to print money.  Like Argentina.  Where the inflation is so bad at times that Argentineans try to exchange their currency for foreign currencies that hold their value longer.  Or try to spend their Argentine pesos as quickly as possible.  Buying things that will hold their value longer than the Argentine peso.

Because printing fiat money is easy a lot of nations print it.  A lot of it.  People living in these countries are stuck with a rapidly depreciating currency.  But international traders aren’t.  If a country prints so much money that their exchange rate changes every few minutes international traders aren’t going to want their currency.  Because a country can’t do much with a foreign currency other than buy exports with it from that country.  A sum of highly depreciated foreign currency won’t buy as much this hour as it did last hour.  Which forces an international trader to quickly spend this money before it loses too much of its value.  (Some nations will basically barter.  They will exchange their exports for another country’s exports based on the current exchange rate.  So that they don’t hold onto the devalued foreign currency at all.)  But if the currency is just too volatile they may demand another currency instead.  Like the British pound, the euro or the American dollar.  Because these stronger currencies will hold their value longer.  So they’ll buy this hour what they bought last hour.  Or yesterday.  Or last week.  There is less risk holding on to these stronger currencies because Britain, the European Central Bank and the United States aren’t printing as much of their money as these nations with highly devalued currencies are printing of theirs.

This is the advantage of gold.  Countries can’t print gold.  It takes an enormous expense to bring new gold to the world’s gold supply.  It’s not easy.  So the value of the gold is very stable.  While some nations may devalue their currencies they can’t devalue gold.  A nation printing too much money may suffer from hyperinflation.  Reducing their exchange rate close to zero.  And when you divide by a number approaching zero the resulting amount of currency required for the exchange approaches infinity.  Weimar Germany suffered hyperinflation.  It was so bad that it took so much money to buy firewood that it was easier and less expensive to burn the currency instead.  This is the danger of a government having the ability to print money at will.  But if that same country can come up with a metric ton of gold that person with the container ship full of wonderful stuff would gladly trade it for that gold.  Even though that person will not trade it for that country’s currency.  This was the basis of the gold standard in international trade.  When nations backed their currencies with gold.  And kept them exchangeable for gold.  Forcing nations to maintain stable currencies.  By maintaining an official exchange rate between their currency and gold.  If that nation devalued its currency the market exchange rate will start to move away from the official exchange rate.  For example, say the official rate was $40/troy ounce.  But because they printed so much of their currency they devalued it to where it took $80 to buy a troy ounce on the open market.  So a nation could take $80 dollars of that devalued currency and exchange it for 2 troy ounces of gold from that nation.  The official exchange rate forcing the nation to give away 2 troy ounces of gold for $80 when the real market exchange rate would only have given them 1 troy ounce.  So devaluing your currency would cause gold to flow out of your country.  And the only way to stop it would be to decrease the size of your money supply.  Undoing the previous inflation.  To bring the market exchange rate back to the official exchange rate.  Which is why the gold standard worked so well for international trade.  Nations could not manipulate their currency to get a trade advantage over another nation.  Making free trade fair trade.  Something few say today.  Thanks to currency manipulators like China.

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If the U.S. was on a Gold Standard there would NOT have been a Financial Crisis in 2007

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 9th, 2013

Week in Review

Counterfeiting money is against the law.  We all know this.  But do we understand why?  Today’s money is just fiat money.  The Federal Reserve prints it and simply says it is money.  So why is it okay for them to print money but not for anyone else?  Because the amount of money in circulation matters.

The goods and services that make up our economy grow at a given rate.  You hear numbers like GDP of 2%, 3% or more.  In China they had GDP numbers in excess of 8%.  The goods and services in our economy are what have value.  Not the money.  It just temporarily holds the value of these goods and services as they change hands in the economy.  So the amount of money in circulation should be close to the value of goods and services in the economy.  Think of a balancing scale.  Where on the one side you have the value of all goods and services in the economy.  And on the other you have the amount of money in circulation.  If you increase the amount of money on the one side it doesn’t increase the amount of goods and services on the other side.  But it still must balance.  So as we increase the amount of money in circulation the value of each dollar must fall to keep the scale in balance.

Now when we put our money into the bank for our retirement we don’t want the value of those individual dollars grow less over time.  Because that would reduce the purchasing power of our money in the bank.  Making for an uncomfortable retirement.  This is why we want a stable dollar.  One that won’t depreciate away the value of our retirement savings, our investments or the homes we live in.  We’d prefer these to increase in value.  But we can stomach if they just hold their value.  For awhile, perhaps.  But we cannot tolerate it when they lose their value.  Because when they do years of our hard work just goes ‘poof’ and disappears.  Leaving us to work longer and harder to make up for these losses.  Perhaps delaying our retirements.  Perhaps having to work until the day we die.  So we want a stable currency.  Like the gold standard gave us (see Advance Look: What The New Gold Standard Will Look Like by Steve Forbes posted 5/8/2013 on Forbes).

The financial crisis that began in 2007 would never have happened had the Federal Reserve kept the value of the dollar stable. A housing bubble of the proportions that unfolded–not to mention bubbles in commodities and farmland–would not have been possible with a stable dollar. The Fed has also created a unique bubble this time: bonds. It hasn’t popped yet (nor has the farmland bubble), but it will.

The American dollar was linked to gold from the time of George Washington until the early 1970s. If the world’s people are to realize their full economic potential, relinking the dollar to gold is essential. Without it we will experience more debilitating financial disasters and economic stagnation.

What should a new gold standard look like? Representative Ted Poe (R-Tex.) has introduced an original and practical version. Unlike in days of old we don’t need piles of the yellow metal for a new standard to operate. Under Poe’s plan–an approach I have long favored–the dollar would be fixed to gold at a specific price. For argument’s sake let’s say the peg is $1,300. If the price of gold were to go above that, the Federal Reserve would sell bonds from its portfolio, thereby removing dollars from the economy to maintain the $1,300 level. Conversely, if the gold price were to drop below $1,300, the Fed would “print” new money by buying bonds, thereby injecting cash into the banking system.

Yes, the subprime mortgage crisis and the Great Recession would not have happened if the Federal Reserve kept the dollar stable.  Instead, they kept printing and putting more money into circulation.  Why?  To keep interest rates low.  To encourage more and more people to buy a house.  Even people who weren’t planning to buy a house.  Even people who couldn’t afford to buy a house.  Until, that is, subprime lending took off.  Because of those low interest rates.  With all of these people added to the housing market who otherwise would not have been there (because of the Federal Reserve’s monetary policies of printing money to keep interest rates artificially low) the demand for new houses exploded.  As people tried to buy these before others could house prices soared.  Creating a great housing bubble.  Houses worth far greater than they should have been.  And when the bubble burst those housing prices fell back to earth.  Often well below the value of the outstanding balance of the mortgage on the house.  Leaving people underwater in their mortgages.  And when the Great Recession took hold a lot of two-income families went to one-income.  And had a mortgage payment far greater than a single earner could afford to pay.

So that’s how that mess came about.  Because the Federal Reserve devalued the dollar to stimulate the housing market (and any other market of big-ticket items that required borrowed money).  If we re-link the dollar to gold things like this couldn’t happen anymore.  For if it would put a short leash on the Federal Reserve and their ability to print dollars.  How?  As they print more dollars the value of the dollar falls.  Causing the value of gold priced in dollars to rise.  So they would have to stop printing money to keep the value of gold priced in dollars from rising beyond the established gold price.  Or they would have to remove dollars from circulation to decreases the value of gold priced in dollars back down to the established price.  Thereby giving us a stable currency.  And stable housing prices.  For having a stable currency limits the size of bubbles the Federal Reserve can make.

But governments love to print money.  Because they love to spend money.  As well as manipulate it.  For example, depreciating the dollar makes our exports cheaper.  But those export sales help fewer people than the depreciated dollar harms.  But helping a large exporter may result in a large campaign contribution.  Which helps the politicians.  You see, a stable dollar helps everyone but the politicians and their friends.  For printing money helps Wall Street, K Street (where the lobbyists are in Washington DC) and Pennsylvania Avenue.  While hurting Main Street.  The very people the politicians work for.

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Cyprus and the Eurozone Crisis shows why we’d be better off with a Gold Standard

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 30th, 2013

Week in Review

Debtors love inflation.  They love to borrow cheap dollars.  And love even more to repay their loans with even cheaper dollars.  Creditors, on the other hand, hate inflation.  Because they are on the other side of that borrowing equation from the debtor.  And when a debtor repays a loan with depreciated dollars the creditor who loaned that money loses purchasing power.  Causing the creditor to lose money.  Just because they had the kindness to loan money to someone who needed it.  Which is a strong disincentive for making future loans.

This has long been at the heart of all banking wars.  And banking crises.  The fight between paper money and hard money.  Printed dollars versus specie (gold and silver).  People who want to borrow money love paper.  Because banks could make a lot of it to lend.  Something they can’t do with gold and silver.  Because it takes a lot more effort and costs to bring new gold into the economy.  Those who want to borrow money argue that hard money hinders economic activity.  Because there is a shortage of money.  And because governments are always interested in boosting economic activity they are always in favor of expanding the paper money supply.  This generous expansion of credit is currently miring the Eurozone in a sovereign debt crisis.  And launched a confiscation of wealth in Cyprus.  Greatly threatening the banking system there.  As few depositors trust their money will be safe in their bank.  Causing people to return to specie (see Cypriot bank crisis boosts demand for gold by Ian Cowie posted 3/27/2013 on The Telegraph).

The Cypriot banking crisis reminds even the most trusting savers that not all banks or jurisdictions are safe – and is boosting demand for gold, bullion dealers claim.

As if to prove the old adage that it’s an ill wind that blows no good, enthusiasts for the precious metal argue that financial shocks in the eurozone are reminding savers of gold’s attractions…

[Daniel Marburger, a director of Jewellers Trade Services Partners (JTS)] said: “The situation in Cyprus has reignited the wider Eurozone sovereign-debt crisis. At a time like this, people are attracted to gold because it is the ultimate crisis commodity.

“The proposed levy on deposits of Cyprus’s savers has not only shaken confidence in the single-currency Eurozone, it illustrates the fragility of savings held within the banking system. In our experience, clients are attracted to gold because it offers insurance against extreme movements in the value of other assets. Unlike paper currency, it will never lose its intrinsic value…”

“The events in Cyprus prove once again that bank customers do face risks as creditors who are owed money…”

When you deposit your money into a bank you become a creditor.  You are loaning your money to the bank.  Who pays you interest to loan your money to others.  If the inflation rate is greater than the interest you earn your money actually shrinks in value.  And the more they print money the more it shrinks in value.  That’s why as a creditor you won’t like the harmful effects of inflation.  Even if it makes the people happy who borrow your money from the bank.  Because they get a real cheap loan at your expense.

Which is why people are drawn to gold.  Because they can’t print gold.  So it holds value better than paper.  And the government can’t just confiscate a percentage of your savings if it isn’t in the bank.  Another reason why people are drawn to gold.  If the banking system collapses, or if the government seizes people’s retirement savings to ward off a banking system collapse, people can take their gold and move somewhere else that isn’t having a financial meltdown.  And not lose any of their wealth.

Which is, of course, the last thing you want to happen in a country.  For a sound banking system is essential for a prospering middle class (if it weren’t for banks only rich people would own homes, cars, go to college, etc.).  Which is why a responsible monetary policy, and responsible people in government, is a prerequisite for a sound banking system.  Which few nations in the Eurozone have.  As few nations throughout the world have.  For they all want to buy votes by giving away free stuff.  And having the power to print money allows them to give away a lot of free stuff.  Pensions.  Health care.  College educations.  Lots and lots of government jobs.  Etc.  But there comes a point when you give away too much.  And you have sovereign debt crises.  As well as confiscations of wealth.

This was the advantage of a gold standard.  Like when we coupled the value of our world’s currencies to the price of gold.  It did not allow any nation to inflate their currency.  For if they did people would exchange that devalued currency for the fully-valued gold.  A strong incentive not to devalue your currency.  Which was nothing more than a promise to pay in gold.  The gold standard kept governments responsible.  But because it made it so difficult to buy votes everyone cheered when President Nixon decoupled the dollar from gold.  Putting an end to the last vestiges of a gold standard.  Allowing governments everywhere to be irresponsible.  Bringing on financial crises.  And the confiscation of wealth.  As we see happening in Cyprus.  And will no doubt see elsewhere.

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Bretton Woods System, Quasi Gold Standard, Inflation, Savings, Nixon Shock and Monetizing the Debt

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 5th, 2013

History 101

The Bretton Woods System was a quasi Gold Standard where the U.S. Dollar replaced Gold

Government grew in the Sixties.  LBJ’s Great Society increased government spending.  Adding it on top of spending for the Vietnam War.  The Apollo Moon Program.  As well as the Cold War.  The government was spending a lot of money.  More money than it had.  So they started increasing the money supply (i.e., printing money).  But when they did they unleashed inflation.  Which devalued the dollar.  And eroded savings.  Also, because the U.S. was still on a quasi gold standard this also created a problem with their trade partners.

At the time the United States was still in the Bretton Woods System.  Along with her trade partners.  These nations adopted the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency to facilitate international trade.  Which kept trade fair.  By preventing anyone from devaluing their currency to give them an unfair trade advantage.  They would adjust their monetary policy to maintain a fixed exchange rate with the U.S. dollar.  While the U.S. coupled the U.S. dollar to gold at $35/ounce.  Which created a quasi gold standard.  Where the U.S. dollar replaced gold.

So the U.S. had a problem when they started printing money.  They were devaluing the dollar.  So those nations holding it as a reserve currency decided to hold gold instead.  And exchanged their dollars for gold at $35/ounce.  Causing a great outflow of gold from the U.S.  Giving the U.S. a choice.  Either become responsible and stop printing money.  Or decouple the dollar from gold.  And no longer exchange gold for dollars.  President Nixon chose the latter.  And on August 15, 1971, he surprised the world.  Without any warning he decoupled the dollar from gold.  It was a shock.  So much so they call it the Nixon Shock.

To earn a Real 2% Return the Interest Rate would have to be 2% plus the Loss due to Inflation

Once they removed gold from the equation there was nothing stopping them from printing money.  The already growing money supply (M2) grew at a greater rate after the Nixon Shock (see M2 Money Stock).  The rate of increase (i.e., the inflation rate) declined for a brief period around 1973.  Then resumed its sharp rate of growth around 1975.  Which you can see in the following chart.  Where the increasing graph represents the rising level of M2.

M2 versus Retirement Savings

Also plotted on this graph is the effect of this growth in the money supply on retirement savings.  In 1966 the U.S. was still on a quasi gold standard.  So assume the money supply equaled the gold on deposit in 1966.  And as they increased the money supply over the years the amount of gold on deposit remained the same.  So if we divide M2 in 1966 by M2 in each year following 1966 we get a declining percentage.  M2 in 1966 was only 96% of M2 in 1967.  M2 in 1966 was only 88% of M2 in 1968.  And so on.  Now if we start off with a retirement savings of $750,000 in 1966 we can see the effect of inflation has by multiplying that declining percentage by $750,000.  When we do we get the declining graph in the above chart.  To offset this decline in the value of retirement savings due to inflation requires those savings to earn a very high interest rate.

Interest Rate - Real plus Inflation

This chart starts in 1967 as we’re looking at year-to-year growth in M2.  Inflation eroded 4.07% of savings between 1966 and 1967.   So to earn a real 2% return the interest rate would have to be 2% plus the loss due to inflation (4.07%).  Or a nominal interest rate of 6.07%.  The year-to-year loss in 1968 was 8.68%.  So the nominal interest rate for a 2% real return would be 10.68% (2% + 8.68%).  And so on as summarized in the above chart.  Because we’re discussing year-to-year changes on retirement savings we can consider these long-term nominal interest rates.

Just as Inflation can erode someone’s Retirement Savings it can erode the National Debt

To see how this drives interest rates we can overlay some average monthly interest rates for 6 Month CDs (see Historical CD Interest Rate).  Which are often a part of someone’s retirement nest egg.  The advantage of a CD is that they are short-term.  So as interest rates rise they can roll over these short-term instruments and enjoy the rising rates.  Of course that advantage is also a disadvantage.  For if rates fall they will roll over into a lower rate.  Short-term interest rates tend to be volatile.  Rising and falling in response to anything that affects the supply and demand of money.  Such as the rate of growth of the money supply.  As we can see in the following chart.

Interest Rate - Real plus Inflation and 6 Month CD

The average monthly interest rates for 6 Month CDs tracked the long-term nominal interest rates.  As the inflationary component of the nominal interest rate soared in 1968 and 1969 the short-term rate trended up.  When the long-term rate fell in 1970 the short-term rate peaked and fell in the following year.  After the Nixon Shock long-term rates increased in 1971.  And soared in 1972 and 1973.  The short-term rate trended up during these years.  And peaked when the long-term rate fell.  The short term rate trended down in 1974 and 1975 as the long-term rate fell.  It bottomed out in 1977 in the second year of soaring long-term rates.  Where it then trended up at a steeper rate all the way through 1980.  Sending short-term rates even higher than long-term rates.  As the risk on short-term savings can exceed that on long-term savings.  Due to the volatility of short-term interest rates and wild swings in the inflation rate.  Things that smooth out over longer periods of time.

Governments like inflationary monetary policies.  For it lets them spend more money.  But it also erodes savings.  Which they like, too.  Especially when those savings are invested in the sovereign debt of the government.  For just as inflation can erode someone’s retirement savings it can erode the national debt.  What we call monetizing the debt.  For as you expand the money supply you depreciate the dollar.  Making dollars worth less.  And when the national debt is made up of depreciated dollars it’s easier to pay it off.  But it’s a dangerous game to play.  For if they do monetize the debt it will be very difficult to sell new government debt.  For investors will demand interest rates with an even larger inflationary component to protect them from further irresponsible monetary policies.  Greatly increasing the interest payment on the debt.  Forcing spending cuts elsewhere in the budget as those interest payments consume an ever larger chunk of the total budget.  Which governments are incapable of doing.  Because they love spending too much.

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